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Content Matters: An Interview with Edward McCain of the Reynolds Journalism Institute

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For this installment of the Content Matters interview series of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Content Working Group I interviewed Edward McCain, digital curator of journalism at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and the University of Missouri Libraries. The University of Missouri Libraries joined the NDSA this past summer.

Edward McCain. Photo by Jennifer Nelson/RJI.

Ashenfelder: What is RJI’s relationship to the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri?

McCain: RJI is a sort of sister organization of the School of Journalism. We work closely with the faculty and staff there. The School of Journalism produces the journalists of the future and RJI is a think tank that works to ensure and help direct the future of journalism.

Ashenfelder: You said that one of the motivations for the University of Missouri Libraries joining the NDSA was the Columbia Missourian’s loss of fifteen years of digital newspaper archives in a server crash. Can you tell us about that event and why this content is so important to preserve?

McCain: The Columbia Missourian is a daily newspaper operated by the University of Missouri School of Journalism that has served this mid-Missouri community since 1908.

According to 2006 and 2008 reports by Victoria McCargar, a 2002 Missourian server crash wiped out fifteen years of text and seven years of photos. The archive was contained in an obsolete software package that effectively prevented cost-effective retrieval. The content that was lost represents a kind of “memory hole,” albeit not the intentional variety described in Orwell’s “1984.”

The disappearance of 15 years of news, birth announcements, obituaries and feature stories about the happenings in any community represents a loss of cultural heritage and identity. It also has an effect on the news ecosystem, since reporters often depend on the “morgue”– newspaper parlance for their library–to add background and context to their stories.

In other parts of the information food chain, radio and television newscasts often rely on newspapers as the basis for their efforts. This, in turn, can have an effect on the democratic process, since the election process benefits from an accurate record of the candidates’ words and actions. All this lends credence to Washington Post Publisher Phil Graham’s statement that journalism is “a first rough draft of history.”

Ashenfelder: You began your career as a photojournalist. How did you get into library science?

McCain: I earned my Bachelor of Journalism degree here at Mizzou and worked in the field for over 30 years, operating my own business for the past twenty. One of McCain Photography’s profit centers has been and continues to be the sale of stock photography, which is based on my image archive.

I eventually found myself reading about controlled vocabularies, databases, metadata and other library science concepts in my spare time. I enjoyed the challenge of structuring information in a way that adds value to content. One day I called the University of Arizona’s School of Information Resources and Library Science program, and was connected to Dr. Peter Botticelli. I asked him a lot of questions. That phone conversation, plus the fact that the SIRLS Masters degree could be combined with the Digital Information Management (DigIn) certificate program, helped me decide to take the leap back into academia.

Ashenfelder: And then you came back to Missouri and joined RJI. What do you bring to RJI as its new digital curator?

McCain: From my perspective, the most important qualities I bring are imagination,  the spirit of entrepreneurship and an ability to get things done. All human endeavors begin with a dream, the ability to visualize new possibilities. I’ve been a successful businessman, but more important is what I’ve learned over the years: the only failure is not owning your mistakes and learning from them so you can do better next time. To me, accomplishing things is often about having clear priorities and not caring who gets the credit; keeping egos (including my own) out of the way.

Those qualities, combined with my knowledge and experience as a journalist, photographer, software developer, businessman and library scientist all come into play in my new position. I’m still a bit amazed that MU Libraries and the Reynolds Journalism Institute created what I consider the perfect position for my skill set and interests at just the right time. And that as a result, I found my dream job.

Ashenfelder: The system you want to create will be able to archive the work of journalists from the newspaper, radio and TV. Can you broadly describe some of the requirements for such a system? What will it need to do in order to serve all of its stakeholders?

McCain: To be clear, we’re still in the embryonic phase of the software development process and we have a lot of research to do in terms of functional and technical requirements. It does seem likely that the framework will have to be modular, extensible and generally able to play well with others.

Obviously, the system will need to accommodate a wide range of file formats and packages during and across the processes needed during the life cycle of digital objects. I believe that we should be able to combine and build on existing open-source platforms to achieve this and more.

From early conversations with the three local media stakeholders, I imagine that that they are going to be focused on search functionality and speed. That means that they want to find relevant content quickly and access and integrate it into their workflow seamlessly.

We are going to spend quite a bit of time optimizing search and workflow issues but once we have a handle on those issues, there will be opportunities for collaboration within and between all three media outlets that will improve their efficiency and enhance the experience for their respective audiences.

Ashenfelder: One of your first tasks is to create a plan for such a system. What research are you doing as you develop that plan?

McCain: The problems surrounding preservation of and access to digital news archives stem from a combination of frequently changing factors. I’m employing an approach adapted from the Build Initiative, which has successfully produced change in the area of education.

The Build Initiative framework is based on change theory and focuses on five broad interconnected elements: context, components, connections, infrastructure and scale. Having this kind of framework allows me to keep the big picture in mind when making decisions.

For example, one of our components provides a new business model for digital news archives. In order to successfully support this service, we need to work in the infrastructure area to create the open-source software required to implement the new model. As in most real-life systems, there are many interconnections between these components. The key is to identify segments where positive outcomes in one realm can spread synergistically into others and continue to build on those successes.

Ashenfelder: You said you would like to share RJI’s system with other people, especially smaller towns and smaller institutions, so their history won’t be lost. Can you please tell us more about that?

McCain: Journalism is struggling to find sustainable and profitable business models. Print advertising revenue is less than half of what it was in 2006 and the number of newspaper journalists has declined by 27 percent since peaking in 1989. This is particularly true in smaller towns and rural areas. Once those businesses close their doors, there is an increased likelihood that its archives, especially those in digital formats, will be lost forever. That’s why I feel it imperative to address issues relating to current and future business models involving news archives.

By creating open-source software, we hope to offer these struggling enterprises new possibilities for generating revenues from their archives. For example, we can assist these organizations in setting up cooperative efforts that allow multiple archives to reside on a single server. That would keep costs low and participants would benefit from a larger pool of content, which is generally more attractive to potential customers, ranging from research services to individual users.

In addition, for those enterprises that don’t want to deal with setting up their own server or establish a co-op, we would like to leverage the efficiencies of the University of Missouri’s IT system to provide our system as a service at an affordable cost.

Since humans tend to save what they value, we will prioritize our programs to support private enterprise’s ability to profit from their archives. Once those archives are seen as valuable assets, they will be preserved and accessed. But in cases where that outcome isn’t realized, part of our initiative involves working as an intermediary between news archive owners and cultural heritage institutions to facilitate the safe transfer of resources to an appropriate location.

Ashenfelder: There are potential opportunities for RJI to collaborate with other institutions, such as the Missouri Press Association and the State Historical Society of Missouri.

McCain: Interestingly, the State Historical Society of Missouri was established by the Missouri Press Association in 1898 and subsequently assumed by the state. They are both significant players in newspaper preservation and access.

I spoke to the MPA board a few weeks ago and found definite interest in working with RJI and the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri to advance the cause of news archive preservation and access. I spoke with several publishers who expressed a willingness to experiment with our software and other services at an appropriate time in the process. SHS has been participating in the National Digital Newspaper Program since 2008 and has valuable experience in working with those and other analog and digital news collections.

Ashenfelder: Much of news content comes from businesses and the private sector. How do you intend to interest profit-oriented companies in RJI’s archive and repository?

McCain: My position is charged with preservation of and access to news archives, whether public or private. While the NDNP continues to do amazing things, there is a gargantuan amount of archival content in the private sector that we probably can’t address with public funding alone. This is one reason why, in its landmark 2010 report “Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information (PDF),” the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access stated the need to “provide financial incentives for private owners to preserve on behalf of the public.”

In light of current funding models for archives in the U.S., it makes perfect sense to work with people in the private sector to demonstrate the potential value of their archive and to assist them in realizing it. If news executives see archives as a profit center instead of a burden, my hope is that those resources will stay viable until they enter the public domain and can be accessed and preserved by other means.

News organizations are businesses and if decision-makers don’t see value in keeping their archives, they have little incentive to preserve them–or even donate them–given current laws that don’t incentivize such transfers to cultural heritage institutions. We plan to address those and other issues in the future by launching efforts in the Context component of our initiative.

Ashenfelder: Can you tell us more about the digital news summit that you are planning at RJI next spring?

McCain: In the spring of 2011, RJI, the University of Missouri Libraries and Mizzou Advantage hosted the first Newspaper Archive Summit. My colleague Dorothy Carner, Head of Journalism Libraries, was instrumental in bringing together publishers, digital archivists, journalists, librarians, news vendors and entrepreneurs to begin a conversation about how best to approach the challenges with which we are currently presented.

Dorothy and I see the next part of that ongoing conversation as a kind of “break out” group focused on dialoging with decision-makers and their influencers in order to better understand their perspectives on access and preservation of archives. Undoubtedly, a large part of the next conversation will involve finding better ways to generate profits from archival resources.

In light of his recent purchase of The Washington Post, we’ve extended an invitation to Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, to speak at the summit next April. I’m not sure he will attend but I think he’s a logical choice as a speaker for the following reasons.

1) It’s no accident that Mr. Bezos started Amazon by selling books, which is another word for content. By establishing relationships with book buyers, Amazon was able to access uniquely useful information about individual tastes and interests that could then be used to customize its marketing of all kinds of other merchandise.

2) Bezos used the Internet to develop a long-tail merchandising platform that could exploit low overhead in order to profit from even rarely ordered items. Most brick and mortar stores can only carry an inventory of high-volume merchandise because their overhead makes selling unpopular items prohibitively expensive. Combine these two effects and – voilà! Amazon becomes the world’s largest online retailer.

I invite you to take a moment to imagine you were Jeff Bezos and had just purchased a business with a lot of potentially valuable content cleverly disguised as a news archive. What would you do with it?


What kind of content matters to you? If you or your institution would like to share your story of long-term access to a particular digital resource, please email [email protected] and in the subject line put “Attention: Content Working Group.”

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